Jablonski: Ranking 10 best Wittenberg football games I’ve covered in last 18 seasons

Tigers off to 4-0 start in 2018 after four-overtime victory at Denison

In 18 seasons covering Wittenberg Tigers football, I have seen every sort of game. Few have measured up to what I witnessed Saturday in Granville when Wittenberg blew a 35-10 halftime lead and still managed to beat Denison 68-66 in four overtimes in the highest-scoring game in North Coast Athletic Conference history.

I admit I had one story written at halftime and ready to publish at the end of the game — that’s what you do during a blowout — about Jeff Tiffner setting the tone with three first-half touchdown receptions.

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I adjusted that story as Denison rallied and then deleted it all together, moving back down to the field late in the fourth quarter to shoot video of all the plays on my phone. By the time Jake Kennedy secured the victory with a two-point conversion run, I had one percent power on both phones.

Back in 2001, when I started covering the Tigers and even sending a story back to the newspaper with a laptop was a challenge every time, recording the games with anything other than a pen and my brain wasn’t an option. However, I do have great memories of many unforgettable games.

Here are the 10 best I’ve seen over the years with excerpts from my stories from the Springfield News-Sun archives. This doesn’t count some classics I’ve missed, such as the four-overtime game two years ago in the playoffs.

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

1. Nov. 17, 2001: Wittenberg 38, Hardin-Simmons 35, OT

ABILENE, Texas — Conrad Hindert had not tried this type of field goal before, even in high school. This was his SAT, his first driving test, all rolled into one.

Hindert, a sophomore from Mariemont High School who came to Wittenberg to be a defensive back, had kicked just four field goals this season.

None approached the importance of this one.

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Still, he watched Tim Daoust snap the ball perfectly, saw Kurt Forrest put down the perfect hold and Hindert knocked it in from 24 yards to give Wittenberg a 38-35 overtime victory Saturday against Hardin-Simmons in the first round of the Division III playoffs.

Hindert had reason to be nervous. But all day he was as cool as a popsicle in January - he tied the game with extra points four times before his winning kick.

"To tell you the truth, I surprised even myself that I didn't have anything going through my mind,'' said Hindert, now 5-of-10 on field goals this season. "Even though all the kicks were really important because we were always down by a touchdown, I still for some reason didn't have anything going through my mind, which I think helped me a lot.”

Credit: David Jablonski - Staff Writer

Credit: David Jablonski - Staff Writer

2. Oct. 17, 2009: Wittenberg 10, Wabash 7

CRAWFORDSVILLE, Ind. — Wittenberg set an unofficial school record for hugs in the aftermath of its 10-7 victory over Wabash on Saturday.

That's what you do when you erase almost a decade of frustration in Little Giant Stadium with one kick. You wrap your arms around the nearest battered, bruised and sweaty teammate, and you hug it out like brothers.

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Fifth-year senior Zack Harris participated in his share of bear hugs. His 31-yard field goal with 1 second left gave the still-unbeaten and 22nd-ranked Tigers (6-0, 4-0 North Coast Athletic Conference) their biggest victory in years and their first on the home field of No. 10 Wabash.

The kick came one season after Wabash beat Wittenberg 13-10 in Springfield on a last-second kick of its own. It's the third time in four seasons the game has come down to a field goal in the final seconds, but this was the first time a Wittenberg kicker got to attempt the final field goal.

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"I was just glad I had a shot," said Harris, who missed most of last season with a knee injury. "I remember standing on the sideline last year when they were kicking. I've seen it three times since I've been here in five years, and we finally got our chance."

Defensive tackle Lance Phillips, another fifth-year senior, called it "probably the greatest victory I've ever had in football."

"I think it's huge for the program," Phillips said. "We've never sung the fight song at Wabash. It's something we've been reminded of quite frequently."

3. Nov. 6, 2004: Wooster 64, Wittenberg 58, OT

WOOSTER — If you knew nothing about Saturday's game but the final score, you would assume it was played on the hardwood in January, that the Tigers and Scots tied the laces on their hightops, pumped up the basketballs and played a game of hoops.

Either that, or NCAA Division III football has become the Arena Football League.

Send this score to Guinness and Ripley's, and defensive coordinators everywhere, cover your eyes:

Wooster 64, Wittenberg 58 in one overtime.

It was the highest-scoring game in the 21 seasons of North Coast Athletic Conference football and in the 112 years of Wittenberg football. No layups or 3-pointers accounted for any of the points. This was a football game — and one that will be long remembered.

The Tigers trailed 48-17 five minutes into the third quarter at John P. Papp Stadium and came all the way back to tie the game at 58 with 15 seconds left in the fourth quarter.

Then Wooster All-American tailback Tony Sutton, whose unbeaten team clinched at least a share of the league title, scored on a 13-yard run in overtime to finally kill the Tigers.

"It just turned into a free-for-all," said Wittenberg coach Joe Fincham, whose team at one point gave up 35 straight unanswered points, "and I guess we took the last punch today."

Credit: David Jablonski - Staff Writer

Credit: David Jablonski - Staff Writer

4. Sept. 29, 2018: Wittenberg 68, Denison 66 (four overtimes)

GRANVILLE — Quarterback Jake Kennedy could still walk. He might have been the last Wittenberg football player to leave the field Saturday. Everyone wants to talk to you when you’ve just thrown seven touchdown passes.

Wide receiver Jeff Tiffner could still stand. He emerged from the locker room in one piece — one of the many minor miracles on a night to remember at Denison’s Deeds Field — after scoring four of Wittenberg’s nine touchdowns.

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Wittenberg Tigers coach Joe Fincham, on the other hand, spent most of time between the end of a 68-66 four-overtime victory and the bus ride home perched on a bench just outside the locker room. Two years earlier, he sat nearby with a similar look on his face as he pondered a 24-21 loss. This time, joy and relief — the later emotion coming from having blown a 35-10 halftime lead and still winning the game — accompanied the disbelief.

“Right now it’s all kind of a blur, to be honest with you,” Fincham said.

In his 23rd season, Fincham can now claim to have coached in the highest-scoring game in Wittenberg and North Coast Athletic Conference history. The 134 points scored by Wittenberg and Denison topped the 131 scored by Earlham and Manchester in 2005.

“You get into games like that, and no team deserves to lose,” Fincham said. Both teams will go back and look back at all the mistakes that were made, but at the end of the day, it’s about a bunch of kids making a whole bunch of plays.”

5. Oct. 12, 2002: Wabash 46, Wittenberg 43 (OT)

SPRINGFIELD — The Little Giants had come up big, so they huddled on the turf at Edwards-Maurer Field after the game and sang a Rolling Stones classic.

“I can’t get no ... satisfaction,” the chorus went.

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How ironic that Wabash would choose that song because satisfaction was exactly what they got Saturday at Wittenberg. Actually, that would be an understatement. In beating the Tigers 46-43 on Mark Server’s 27-yard field goal in overtime, the Giants got satisfaction, relief, thrills and then disappointments and ultimately the one thing that no other North Coast Athletic Conference team had gotten in nearly five years — a victory over Wittenberg.

“I never thought we were going to lose, never in my mind,” Wittenberg senior and Greenon graduate Andy Waddle said.

Credit: David Jablonski - Staff Writer

Credit: David Jablonski - Staff Writer

6. Nov. 23, 2002: Wittenberg 34, Hanover 33

HANOVER, Ind. — They wore no disguise, demanded nothing, but this was a holdup all the same. The Tigers marched into Hanover College and stole a game from the Panthers on Saturday in the first round of the NCAA Division III playoffs.

Still, Wittenberg marched out of town with its head held high. This was a legal robbery, a 34-33 victory that defied odds — if Wittenberg didn’t stop at one of the three nearby riverboat casinos, it missed its chance.

“We’re going to get out ski masks on and ride out of town after stealing this thing,” Wittenberg coach Joe Fincham said. “That’s what we did. We stole one today.”

Hanover outgained Wittenberg in yardage 501-376. It held the ball for 37:08. It had a 21-7 halftime lead and — despite blowing that lead — had its kicker, Drew Starck, ready to hit a 37-yarder with 20 seconds left in the game. Starck hit a 52-yard field goal in the team’s previous game and was called the Golden Foot in the team’s press release.

The 37-yard kick would have given the Panthers a 36-34 win and would have ruined Wittenberg’s second comeback in the first round in as many years (it overcame a 21-7 deficit to beat Hardin-Simmons on the road in 2001) and would have removed Wittenberg’s chance at getting a rematch with Wabash in the next round.

Would have, could have, should have ... didn’t.

Starck slipped as he kicked the ball, and the ball sailed like a wounded goose. It landed in the end zone, and the Houdini of the D-III playoffs had escaped again.

Credit: Staff photo by David Jablonski

Credit: Staff photo by David Jablonski

7. Nov. 13, 2010: Wittenberg 22, Wooster 17

WOOSTER — Dozens of Wittenberg football players shouted at once Saturday afternoon, the realization dawning on them that all they had worked for since August lay across the field in a cardboard box.

"T-shirts!" they screamed.

Soon every Tiger still able to walk after a thrilling 22-17 victory at Wooster twirled in the air brand-new white T-shirts with the words, "2009-2010 Back-to-Back NCAC Champions," printed on the front.

The 2009 Tigers dominated. The 2010 Tigers persevered.

Wittenberg's second straight 10-0 season and its second straight NCAA Division III playoff berth — the pairings will be released today — wasn't secured until defensive end Eddie Vallery, whose shoulder hurt so much minutes earlier he could barely rise from the turf after a tackle, sacked Wooster quarterback Richard Barnes on fourth-and-17 in the final seconds.

A seventh-ranked Wittenberg team that had trailed 7-6 at halftime, 10-9 after three quarters and 17-16 with under two minutes to play somehow found a way to win, a trait that showed up in all four road games - each of which came down to the final minute.

"This could have been my last game as a college athlete," said Vallery, a senior who had two sacks. "You just had to leave it all out there."

Wittenberg (6-0 NCAC) scored two touchdowns in the fourth quarter to win the game, the first a 43-yard grab by Josh McKee that gave the Tigers a 16-10 lead with 12 minutes, 7 seconds to go.

With a little more than three minutes to play, after Wooster had regained the lead at 17-16, it was trying to run out the clock when Wittenberg senior safety Ty Whittington intercepted Barnes to give the Tigers the ball at the 50-yard line.

Seven plays later, Zoeller scored the game-winning TD on a 4-yard run with 1:23 to play. It was a play Wittenberg struggled to score on all year, but it worked in the end.

"When you get down in there in tight games, you stick with your guns," offensive coordinator Andy Mitchel said.

"Running off the sidelines," Zoeller said, "people were like, ‘Finally, finally, you got the in the end zone.’”

8. Nov. 8, 2014: Wittenberg 21, Wabash 15

SPRINGFIELD — Everybody and their brother shook coach Joe Fincham’s hand after a 21-15 victory over Wabash on Saturday at Edwards-Maurer Field.

Brian Alspaugh, Adam Kattoua, Aaron Shaffer, Matt Gallatin, Josh McKee and so many other former Tigers found their way down to the field to bask in the program’s third straight North Coast Athletic Conference championship and fifth in six years.

Fincham got some hugs, too, including one from assistant coach John Derr, who left a few tears on Fincham’s shoulder as they embraced. Derr’s dad John, a former Wittenberg defensive tackle, died of a heart attack at 55 on Thursday.

This victory meant the world to so many people. It ensured the seniors of at least one more game after the regular-season finale at Allegheny next Saturday because the Tigers (8-1, 8-0) clinched a playoff berth. Even if Wittenberg loses to the Gators, it can do no worse than share the title.

However, it’s hard to imagine the victory touched anyone more than Derr, a one-time student coach who stayed with the program after graduation.

“Today was really my first day back,” Derr said. “I was having a hard time holding it together. I knew (my dad) would want me to come.”

This will go down in the pantheon of great Wittenberg-Wabash games. The series is now tied 8-8 since Wabash joined the league in 2000. Half of those games have been decided by seven points or less.

No. 14 Wittenberg, which won its 21st straight conference game, sealed the victory with an interception by Ryan Myers on a desperation pass by Wabash quarterback Michael Putko with 28 seconds left.

9. Oct. 22, 2010: Wittenberg 27, Carnegie-Mellon 21 (OT)

PITTSBURGH — Moments after the winning touchdown Saturday, one Wittenberg player said it best: "The dream continues."

A week before Halloween, the Tigers lived the dream after staring their worst nightmare in the face. Carnegie Mellon kicker Elliot Carnevale missed a 30-yard field goal that would have won the game as time expired in the fourth quarter. He didn't miss by much and started jumping up and down in celebration before the officials called it no good.

Minutes later, in overtime, after Carnevale had missed a second field-goal attempt from 37 yards, Wittenberg quarterback Ben Zoeller threw a 3-yard touchdown pass to Josh McKee, and the still-unbeaten Tigers turned the Steel City into the Steal City with a 27-21 victory at Gesling Stadium.

"We showed enough character to continue to fight," Wittenberg coach Joe Fincham said. "Do you have to have a little luck? No doubt. But, and I really do believe this, you make your own luck. Now do we all need to go into the locker room, put our ski masks on and get out of town? Yeah, probably. But at the same time, we found a way to win."

The No. 8 Tigers (8-0) won their 18th straight regular-season game and get a much needed Saturday off this week. Their season resumes with a North Coast Athletic Conference first-place showdown against Wabash in Springfield on Nov. 6.

Credit: Bill Lackey

Credit: Bill Lackey

10. Oct. 14, 2006: Wittenberg 19, Wabash 17

SPRINGFIELD — Four seconds remained. The distance was 28 yards. Wittenberg led 19-17 as Wabash kicker Chad Finley lined up for the game-deciding field goal.

"These things can make you grow old," one of the line judges said to Wittenberg coach Joe Fincham as Fincham called the Tigers' last timeout to make Finley think about it a little longer.

"Only if we lose," Fincham replied.

Well, Wittenberg didn't.

Finley's kick sailed wide right by about five feet at the final buzzer Saturday at Edwards-Maurer Field, and the Wittenberg coaches and players rushed the field to celebrate like little kids on Christmas morning.

"The past three years we've been wanting it, but we couldn't ever get the big game together," said Wittenberg senior cornerback Joe Brumfield, a Kenton Ridge graduate. "Finally, we did it. It's a big moment. Hopefully, it carries over not only for this season but for many years to come."

The Tigers have won four in a row after an 0-2 start, and they now have to be considered the favorite to win the North Coast Athletic Conference championship.

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